‘High Quality, Low Volume’ Drives to 35 Workers, 4,500 SKUs

Traditional ecommerce wisdom is that merchants should sell across multiple channels, control or manufacture their merchandise, and scale.

Do not tell that to Brian Goulet, president of The Goulet Pen Company, which sells high-end fountain pens and writing accessories.

“I wanted to be a craftsman,” Goulet told me. “That approach shapes our entire enterprise. We’ve got a craftsmanship mentality of high touch, high quality, higher degree of support — with a lesser volume. I was not trying to scale or market as much as possible. We were following a discerning client.”

Ten years after Goulet co-founded the firm with his wife, Rachel, Goulet Pens has 35 employees and 4,500 SKUs — all in its headquarters of Henrico, Virginia — and one sales channel:

I recently spoke with Brian about establishing the company, content advertising, and managing an expanding group. What follows is our whole audio conversation and a transcript, which can be edited for clarity and length.

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Eric Bandholz: Tell us about yourself and Goulet Pen Company.

Goulet: My wife and I started the company in 2009. We are 100-percent ecommerce. Our sole revenue channel is our site, Our business is centered on fountain pens. The technology has existed for 150 years. These are the sorts of pens which you fill up with water-based ink, which comes from a bottle. We sell ink, paper, and other accessories. We have about 4,500 products in our shop, which, again, is online. We meet and ship ourselves. We are not a dispersed team, except for today with Covid-19.


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We do customer service, marketing, fulfillment, inventory operations — all in 1 location in Virginia. Our team is all about 35 people. We rely heavily on content promotion — how to use fountain pens; the best way to clean themwhat makes one pencil different from another.

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Some of our manufacturers have been in existence for 100 years — multi-generational family businesses. They’re located in Japan, Germany, Italy, places where fountain pen culture is still very powerful. But from the U.S., it is not so much anymore. So, that is the chance to have plenty of content around fountain pens.

Bandholz: You are a conventional ecommerce retailer. You do not manufacture your product. How has Amazon impacted your company?

Goulet: Amazon is your 800-pound gorilla. It has influenced us. We’ve been very conscious of Amazon from our start. I had been making my own pens from wood, not fountain pens, but high end, gift-type pens. I had been a woodworker. I wanted to be a craftsman. So, that approach shapes our entire enterprise. We had a workmanship mindset of high touch, high quality, higher degree of support — with a lesser volume. I was not trying to scale or market as much as possible. We were following a discerning client.

Thankfully, decent service and quality education aren’t what Amazon excels at. Our clients may have a selection of 40 fountain pens already. They are not focused on getting their order in just two hours. They’re prepared to wait an additional day or two. But they understand that our business can answer their vague fountain pen questions. We care about our clients. We’ve got a rapport with them. So, the best way to contend with Amazon is to not compete.

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Bandholz: Why have in-house satisfaction? Why not outsource?

Goulet: component of it was ignorance. We also did not have a choice. I was selling my own handmade wood pens. We sent throughout the U.S. Postal Service from our house. So it began out of practicality.

We’d no cash . We began the company with $2,000. And by the way, our son, who is now 10, was born afterward. Throw in a loan, and it becomes clear real quick.

Again, I am a craftsman. That mindset drives how we package and ship our products. We have looked at third party satisfaction companies, but there are a lot of benefits to getting it in-house. So, that is why we do it like that.

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Bandholz: Your YouTube station is extraordinary. What was the strategy there?

Goulet: Not much of a strategy. I began making YouTube videos in 2010. I give credit to Gary Vaynerchuk and his book, “Crush It.” This was his first marketing publication. He is now written five.

I liked the concept of education and blogging and being a subject matter specialist. And pairing that with selling goods. I saw the possibility of the for the fountain pen community. No one was doing this. I saw a chance to take it on line and to pair it with articles advertising. I understood that video was a fantastic alternative for me personally. And the goods are visual, suited to videos and photos. And it was a way to construct a connection.

Now, 1,700 videos afterwards, YouTube has turned out to be a successful platform for our organization and its DNA. It has been a slow, 10-year construct.

Bandholz: You and I recently discussed direction. Among your staples is that nobody ought to be surprised concerning the outcome of working in your organization. Can you elaborate on that?

Goulet: To be uncertain as a leader is to be unkind. There are only three reasons why someone within a business isn’t effective at his job. The first explanation is that the employee has personal problems, stuff that you can not control. The next is incompetence — he is not capable of doing the job. But perceived incompetence is leadership failure. That is the third reason. The leadership failure is that individual should have never been hired in the first location.

Bandholz: Trust is one of my core values. I inherently trust people. When an employee says he is doing things, then I believe him. How can you balance trust with ensuring the job gets done, to meet business objectives?

Goulet: It is a good point. We’ve got 35 or so people for 19 or 20 unique positions. How can we define these positions with constantly changing jobs? And then, how can we assign metrics to them that are clear for both sides — management and employees?

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I am much more of an entrepreneur than a supervisor. Without the correct tools and metrics, you are leaving it up to fate to decide if a person is successful in her job. Plus, without clear objectives and metrics, people are unclear about their responsibilities, particularly as the business gets larger. So, you must concentrate on metrics and clarity the larger you get.

Bandholz: How can you communicate those expectations and metrics?

Goulet: It is based upon the size of their organization and its growth rate. A group of 10,000 people is different than a group of four. The perfect answer, to me, is that you need no more structure and no more meetings than are demanded. However, you need to have enough to offer clarity. At a minimum, it is crucial to have a one- or two-day yearly planning meeting for senior leadership and then, possibly, a one-day or half-day catch-up per quarter.

I also like the concept of weekly or twice-monthly meetings for the whole company. We also do daily five- or 10-minute stand-up meetings for our leadership group.

That program works well for us since we are constantly launching new products, maybe 150 SKUs per month. So, there’s a good deal of new product info, new shipments, new advertising. We meet at 8:45 every morning in these stand-ups, as a wider leadership group of nine or 10 people.

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